Learning to express complex emotions

Culture: On the surface, Nina Tassi would seem an odd choice to lead the creative writing program at Morgan State. But differences give her and her students more to talk, and write, about.

April 14, 1999|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

On this fresh spring day at Morgan State University, a dozen or so writing students are enmeshed in the anguish of a woman struggling with the pains of childbirth, none as searing as knowing that her baby's father is the Southern slave owner who abuses her.

As Keneshia Thornton reads the story she wrote, her listeners occasionally murmur and shake their heads. At its conclusion, there's a moment of silence before the wave of appreciation begins. This is a class that enters one another's work, takes inspiration from it and is not shy about expressing thanks.

No one listens more intently than creative writing teacher Nina Tassi. During a lull in the conversation, she points out that Thornton has used fiction as a way into the heart of history.

Another student rolls her eyes when she hears this: "To me, history is a cover-up," she protests.

The writers in English 323-Short Story Writing discuss this notion until at least one thing seems certain: At Morgan State University, student fiction is never far from the subject of truth -- and its shifting perceptions. These young writers relate tales of historic suffering, of black men stopped by police officers in white neighborhoods, of the complex relationships between the sexes. They write about the deaths of friends and family members, about lust, about abuse. They craft stories from betrayal and from love -- telling how both can change your vision.

Spurring them on, encouraging and editing, is Tassi, who directs the creative writing program. In five years, she has more or less developed the entire program, creating courses in poetry and fiction, organizing poetry readings, publishing chapbooks of student work and instituting a creative writing focus in the master's degree in English.

Raised in South Bend, Ind., a descendant of Puritan John Cotton, Tassi came to Morgan in 1994 with a Ph.D. in comparative literature and a deep desire to teach. At the time, she was perhaps best known locally for her work in journalism: Tassi was managing editor of the Towson Times, Baltimore Messenger and the Jeffersonian newspaper group in the early 1980s and wrote the 1991 book "Urgency Addiction: How to Slow Down Without Sacrificing Success." Along the way, she also raised three children and served in college administration; she was the first woman dean appointed at Loyola College, where her husband teaches philosophy.

But Tassi has always been drawn to fiction. After writing two novels set in Puritan New England, she taught creative writing part-time at Loyola and longed to get into it full time. When an opportunity at Morgan presented itself, she grabbed it -- and found she had entered a different academic world, a place where teaching was more like coaching, a place where students were hungry for feedback from their peers as well as their teachers.

"Other students I've had have not been as interested in what other classmates might be saying or responding," Tassi says. "But there's a very intimate feeling that develops with my students at Morgan. There's an entire silent conversation that's going on beneath the exchange."

The professor discovered that most of her students -- this semester's short-story group includes a security guard and two sisters from Nigeria -- came to class with so much to express that she almost never devised exercises.

"These students are so in touch with their emotions that there's nothing buried, nothing that has to be brought up to the surface," she marvels.

Including the anger directed at white America. Tassi recalls one poem written by a student who always brought his infant to class.

"He wrote about me," she says. "It went: `I sit there with poise and grace and listen to them lambaste my race.' I don't take it personally when they're venting. I can listen as a member of my own race without feeling personally assaulted. I feel that I am `the other' for them. And I am perfectly willing to listen to them sound off about whites because to say it to yourself is not the same as to say it to `the other.' "

She's also engineered opportunities for her students to have a wide audience. After organizing public poetry readings for them on the Morgan campus and at the Raven bookshop in Hampden, Tassi let her students take the initiative.

Subsequent student-run readings have featured music, candlelight and an open mike.

"When the students take over and do it for themselves, you really feel as if they've gotten it into their blood," Tassi says.

One of her students just won first prize for poetry in a contest sponsored by the College Language Association. Another is preparing a poetry show for the university's student-run radio station, WMSU.

Keneshia Thornton, author of "The Pain of Childbirth," is a 21-year-old biology major who hopes to get a graduate degree in psychology but calls writing "her true passion." In last year's chapbook, she published 12 poems on such diverse subjects as black family reunions, hairstyles, light skin and domestic abuse.

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